The Pastoral Savior Syndrome

By Mark Tidsworth, Pinnacle President

We used to hear this story quite often, sounding something like this. “They called me as their pastor since I’m married with young kids, believing this would bring young families to the church. Now I’ve been there long enough that clearly this strategy is not working, so they are blaming me for not bringing in the young families. I’m challenging us to take responsibility for the way we are church together, with a call toward making the changes needed so that young families may want to participate with this church. The strong pushback seems to say this church prefers a pastoral savior who will rescue them from the necessity for change.”

As noted, we used to hear this story more often. So much has changed in the world around us and in the way churches function that I thought this approach to church-life had gone the way of all things. When I heard the story again recently from three separate coaching clients, I realized my mistake. Evidently some churches have not moved on.

Perhaps this represents a frequent case of mistaken identity for churches, believing their pastor is the savior. Yet, before we move on too quickly, there’s much to learn from this kind of experience. There are layers of assumption which lead a church to the place where it exaggerates the role of pastor to such a level.


Mistaken assumption that the attractional model of church is still effective

Remember when there were many people in our culture looking for a church? If so, you are likely 45 years of age or older. There was a time when it was culturally and socially advantageous to participate in a church. Then, even people who were not interested in personal participation were very aware church-life was central to the life of their communities. Now, there are many people who have minimal awareness of church-life, not feeling attracted to a church though it’s very attractive to us.


Mistaken assumption that a church to which we (insiders) are attracted is a church to which they (outsiders) would be attracted

The reality is that what may attract Christian insiders may be miles away from what attracts those who are unfamiliar with the Christian story. Besides this, what attracts people to the Christian faith is not a really big show done really well (worship). Instead it’s disciples of Jesus Christ living out the beautiful Way of Jesus in real time. When we are caught up in the Way of Jesus, partnering with God towards world transformation, then others are drawn to this way of life. That’s attractive.


Mistaken assumption about the role of pastor

Sure, there are some super-star pastors who can draw big crowds (mostly from other churches) through excellent communication skills. One was called to a mid-size church I know well. During his six year tenure, the church drew Christians from all around the city, with great numerical growth. After his retirement, the church numerically declined again to about the size it was before his arrival. Fortunately, the wise among them prevented this pastor from charging ahead with the building campaign for a larger worship space, which would have left them with a large mortgage and no super-star pastor. So, super-star pastors exist, though they are less than 1% of the pastoral pool. Waiting to snag one may be a long wait, not to mention the mistaken assumption about pastoral roles built into this approach.


Mistaken assumption about the role of laity

Wait a minute. When we dive deep into this approach to being church, we recognize it communicates that most people in church are passive bystanders. We exaggerate the role of pastor while discounting the role of all the other disciples. I’m remembering what’s become church folk-lore now, yet came out of the Congregational Life Surveys: “First time visitors to worship are 6 times more likely to visit a worship service when invited by a disciple in that church versus when invited by the pastor of that church.” It’s the pastor’s job to invite people to taste and see, yet the rest of us aren’t paid to do that. We only invite others when we believe there’s a life giving opportunity ahead. When we are not actively inviting others to our church’s activities, then it means something about what we really think of our church.


A Better Way

It’s not about the pastor, nor about being attractive in the way we are attracted to church. It’s not about keeping up the numbers so that we can enjoy church-life in the manner to which we have grown accustomed. Instead, it’s about embracing and living the beautiful Way of Jesus. Sure, the lazy parts of ourselves rather outsource our responsibilities; finding the super-star pastor to build a crowd and make us feel like we’ve done something. But deep in our hearts we know there’s something wrong with that picture. When we drill down to our deepest longings, most of us want to be a part of God’s movement in this world. We are hungry for deep, faith-based relationships with God and each other. We want to engage those around us in deeper, more significant ways, immersing ourselves in the better way. So let’s be the change we hope to see in the world and in our churches; embracing the good and lovely way of life inspired by Jesus the Christ. 

Helen Renew